By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
photo by Tim Fuller
George H.W. Bush (Mark Jacoby), left, and Ronald Reagan (Steve Sheridan) share a presidential moment in the Nixon Library.
The word is out. Arizona Theatre Company's world premiere of “Five Presidents” has won Tucson's vote. Standing ovations are a nightly occurrence for this 90-minute production performed without intermission.
After an unfortunate opening week at ATC when one of the cast members had to drop out because of a death in the family, Jeffrey Steitzer (an old friend of the company) stepped in and had his role up to speed in just a few days. That's when crowds began pouring into the downtown Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., where “Five Presidents” will run through Feb. 1.
As entertaining as it is brilliantly glib, this look at an imagined conversation among five men who have served as President of the United States is set in real time as they wait together to attend Richard Nixon's funeral in Yorba Linda, California.
The delightful script written by Rick Cleveland (television's “The West Wing,” “Six Feet Under,” “Mad Men” and “House of Cards”) plays on the idea that revealing moments of real personality would pop up as this quintet of massive political egos go bobbing around, bouncing off each other in unassuming small talk.
In a way, “Five Presidents” is built of the same ingredients as Cleveland's successful TV shows. But with direction by Mark Clements, we can quickly accept the feeling of eavesdroppers hiding behind an unseen sofa in the Nixon Library.
Waiting to see what each of these men looks like as he steps on stage is a part of the fun.
First we meet broad-shouldered Gerald Ford (Steitzer), pacing about, determined to hold his own in this august group. Much lighter is Jimmy Carter (Martin L'Herault), maintaining his perpetual optimism. George H. W. Bush (Mark Jacoby) follows right behind, eager to create the impression of still being a robust personality.
All of which sets up the entrances everyone is waiting for, the two ex-presidents with the highest pop culture profiles – Ronald Reagan (Steve Sheridan) and Bill Clinton (Brit Whittle).
Out of nowhere there is impromptu applause as Reagan pops in with a jar of jelly beans under his arm. He may have no idea where he is, but he is going to act presidential...with a casual manner, of course.
Of all the presidents, Reagan looks the most like a political caricature of himself. He's also the most adept at getting laughs with his befuddled body language.
Giving equal time to the other political party, Clinton gets no sympathy, either. They all wish Clinton would just stop talking, and resent how he was always so popular with everyone. Clinton's charismatic dalliances also get some attention.
But really, what we are left with is the sense that all these men were a blend of extraordinary talents and quite ordinary human qualities. We watch and are reminded being great at some things doesn't make you great at everything.
Which is particularly apt at a time when our country seems more polarized than ever. We need to keep remembering all-or-nothing answers will only guarantee continuing clashes between black and white forces.
“Five Presidents” plays at various times through Feb. 1 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $37-$67. For details and reservations, 622-2823, or visit www.arizonatheatre.org